Preoccupied with Things Left Behind: On Three Nigerian Artists

Helena Foster, "Bittersweet," 2021. Courtesy the artist.

There are three Nigerian artists you must know who are preoccupied with things left behind. 

There’s Kelani Abass, based in an enclave between Lagos and Ogun State, who inherited the archives of his parents’ printing business in Abeokuta: a press with oil-based ink and metal letters; biographies and portraits of neighbors and strangers; a twine-bound vellum book of spells and incantations. Then there’s Helena Foster, who is half-English and based in London. Her family left Benin City urgently in the early 2000s when Foster was a teenager, assured that a crate full of their belongings would soon follow: furniture, family albums, memories of growing up in a sleepy town that had not yet aspired to be a city—a place where everyone went to the same schools, eateries, and video clubs. The crate never came. And finally, Peter Uka, who has spent more than two decades in Germany, where he continued his art studies before settling in Cologne. Like Foster, he, too, left home young but without his family: his self-taught artist father, his mother, his grandfather, who was a woodcarver and farmer, and his potter grandmother. Uka’s closest childhood ties are to Benue, a verdant state whose slogan is “Food Basket of the Nation” but these days is more associated with conflict between farmers and herders over its natural resources. 

Young, emerging, trend-driven artists are increasingly dominating the Nigerian art scene. This is especially true in Lagos, the center where the most critical press, curatorial engagement, and trade in art happens. Art that reckons with historical antecedents is typically produced outside such commercial centers like, say, in Benin or at the prestigious art school at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. In Lagos, it doesn’t receive nearly as much fanfare as what’s market-chic. Before hyperrealist artists received the most attention, what prevailed were  naturalist scenes of everyday life, in markets, in hours-long traffic jams, and on rainy days; mother-and-child themes were also very popular. 

But Abass, Foster, and Uka consider family and intergenerational relations in a different way. “It’s always about what we lose. What we leave behind,” Uka told me in March over a strained internet connection. These artists collectively attempt to remember and preserve. They paint, assemble, and tell stories to fill a personal vacuum of history and—even if unintentionally—sociocultural and political voids in Nigeria. 

Kelani Abass, “Colonial Indexicality 243,” 2019. Courtesy the artist.

In Nigeria, history is disposable. For instance, the Nigeria-Biafra civil war was relegated to a brief footnote in most government-issued textbooks. It wasn’t until Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published Half of a Yellow Sun in 2006 that those born after the war—and who didn’t grow up in Igbo households—knew the scope of the genocide and humanitarian crimes against the Igbo people. We would later learn that the Biafrans committed similar crimes against smaller ethnic groups. 

British-imported Christianity determined that all sociocultural or religious norms that did not align with its doctrine were threats, and as such must be erased. In some cases, secondary-school students were forced to choose between studying history and art or literature. In one particularly incredulous instance, the choice included chemistry; a subject seldom required at any level of education, it became unpopular over time. In 2007, a reckless federal legislature struck history altogether from the basic education curriculum. (A minister ordered its reintroduction in 2016.) 

Kelani Abass, “Colonial Indexicality 1639,” 2019. Courtesy the artist.

Kelani Abass. Courtesy the artist.

Abass’s studio is a display of careful assemblage. On the floor are mixed-media works on neatly-wrapped wood boards that marry metal letters; thumb-sized sepia or black-and-white headshots of children and men laughing; physical crests that announce associations and loyalties to social groups. Also present are bigger, palm-sized, sepia-toned portraits of women in formal poses, eyes trained on the camera, in their knee-high aso oke or aso ofi (in vogue in the 1970s, as were matching bell-bottoms worn by men). On the same board are paintings of men or women in flamboyant dress and different poses implying festivity. 

The Abeokuta community depended on the printing press run by Abass’s father, Kelly,  to document the motions of their lives: funerals, birthdays, anniversaries, and generational knowledge. Abass is not the owner of these histories,  but he encountered them in their abandonment. Those who took these photos and shared their lives to be printed and documented on paper didn’t usually keep extra copies. 

Visible in Abass’s assemblages is the slowing down of time, an integration and consolidation of histories and visual languages that no longer exist as they once did. In the 2019 exhibition [Re]entanglements: Contemporary Art and Colonial Archives at the National Museum in Lagos, Abass was invited to engage with the work of Northcote W. Thomas. He linked the British anthropologist’s research of Benin peoples with archival images from institutions including the National Museum, tracing the lineage of the people Thomas documented. During the exhibition’s run, an elderly man discovered a branch of his family tree that he had not known existed. 

Of course, this is a too-rare example of one person who chooses to see and preserve history. The Yoruba spellbook Abass’s father passed to him was marked for destruction by his mother. Being a Christian, she insisted that the book carried dark powers. Abass had to do more than cajole her; he had to convince her that it was not only an important historical document but also useful for his practice going forward. And when that wasn’t quite enough, Abass had to stress that it was, after all, an inheritance he was owed. She reluctantly agreed to let it go. 

Helena Foster, “The Smell of Indigo,” 2022. Courtesy the artist.

Helena Foster. Courtesy the artist.

Foster’s mother was similarly discomfited when she learned that her daughter wanted to paint an unflattering family scene. She protested that “dirty laundry” was not for public consumption. Hers was an aversion to history wrapped in sociocultural respectability and ribboned by religiosity. However, Foster’s painting is not unique to their family but rather presents a shared cinematic history she grew fascinated with after finding herself pining for home. The 1990s was when Nollywood was at the height of its powers and perhaps most representative of Nigerian people (as opposed to the aspirational, US-influenced Nigerian affectations that Netflix cultivates today). To access Nigerianisms authentically, Foster turns to old Nollywood. Her approach is in service of her curiosity, but it’s also a reclamation of pop-culture history.

From the flip-phone camera era to the iPhone age, Foster has continuously taken pictures of her TV screen. She has also watched endless hours of ’90s Nollywood and often receives film posters as gifts from friends. When, on a virtual studio visit in May she pans her iPad around her London studio, the evidence is pasted on the walls, scattered on her worktable. Sufficiently immersed in this time capsule, she paints. Foster employs dark, muted tones or otherwise flamboyant colors robbed of their noise. Purple is a constant. The mood is often weighted, heavy. There is movement. The grainy veneer of the paintings suggests they were painted much earlier than 2020. The characters are evidently in different scenes of consequence, tenderness, conflict, reflection. In one painting, titled Bittersweet (2021), two characters rest against one another in a side embrace. They are presumably mother and son. She holds his head against hers with one hand, and the other holds his hand on her thigh.

To the uninformed viewer, it’s just a mother and son. But the body of work that it’s part of draws on the Nollywood classic Owo Blow, a 1996 crime drama directed by Tade Ogidan that was unlike any other at the time. It follows a man driven to crime who still holds to some principles—to never shed blood, for instance. Foster immortalizes not only the film but the socioeconomic mood of the mid-1990s: a country and people without freedoms, within the grips of a military government and dwindling fortunes. Today, our president is a former general, and unemployment is at 33 percent. Mother and son knew then—as many know now— that all we have is each other. The state has forsaken us and led us to make untenable choices. 

Helena Foster, “Empty Promise,” 2020. Courtesy the artist.

“I was paying attention to narratives that reminded me of my family,” Foster said of her work at large. As it happens, these are stories of many, many families. 

Like Foster, Uka captures yesteryears, but the mood in his is lighter, or at least less placid, and festive. He captures a post-independence joie de vivre,  rendered in arresting colors and at a large scale. I remember seeing his work for the first time. You couldn’t just walk past it. Five men in red bell-bottoms, three browsing books, all hanging around a Peugeot 405 saloon: the ultimate representation of middle-class Nigerians on the up two or three decades ago. In hindsight, it’s a somewhat incredulous scene. Why have they stopped the car to mill around? Why do they have a book in hand; why are all their faces and backs averted from the viewer? But the image could also be spot on. It is a kind of comical window into an older time, designed to impress whoever looks in. These are markers of affluence and seriousness, after all. 

Unlike Abass, Uka has, until recently, shied from using photos as reference material. He paints from his memory, attempting to hold on to his childhood while far away from it. His mother appears in his paintings. There are scenes of repose, including of a man nodding off in his barber’s chair, his then-in-vogue Afro in sharp view, and the painted wooden panels hanging behind him exhorting passersby to get a similar style. In Still Riding (2021), a woman in a yellow-and-red ankara dress poses on a green Vespa parked by a wall made of breeze blocks with diamond-shaped cutouts—a 1970s to 1990s design favorite that teases a glimpse of some leafy environment while obscuring an outsider’s full view.

Peter Uka, “Vibe,” 2020-21. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim.

Portrait of Peter Uka. Courtesy of Mariane Ibrahim

In other scenes, there’s verdant green and the small-scale industry of township life. In Vibe (2021), there’s vigorous dancing by well-dressed men and women in flared trousers, so animated, swishing, you can almost hear the music. James Brown? The Funkees? The Lijadu Sisters, perhaps? Uka’s is the direct documentation of a time that does not really exist in present popular culture, and of a people—from Benue, although not always easily determinable as such—who are asymmetrically represented in mainstream visual art. It is an exercise in redress. His work has been compared to the similarly intimate and nostalgic portraits of Njideka Akunyili Crosby, who has found an audience and great success far from Nigerian shores. 

Similarly, Uka, Foster, and Abass are steadily ascendant in the critical imagination and art market of the Global North. But what do they know, anyway? Although they are known in the Nigerian market, their careers are being molded in the West. These custodians of Nigerian history, whose works fill voids of documentation, and who make social, cinematic, and political histories contemporary, enjoy more attention from an audience and market that has no ties to their history except in its erasure. 

Do the histories that inspire these works have anything to do with their success abroad? It may very well be that the technical merits of Foster, Uka, and Abassare what Western gallerists, curators, and collectors see first—and the history is learned after the fact and not reckoned with in any critical manner. All three artists’ works are aesthetically digestible and don’t nod to a larger or overt political point, at least to an unattuned viewer. It’s also worth considering that Western patrons seldom emphasize the historical value of their work (Abass, who has shown extensively in Nigerian institutions, is the exception). You could see European galleries and collectors as engaging with such works from a place of inherited guilt, or now foregrounding African artists as a balm to their wounded sense of innocence. Of course, there’s also the commercial benefit: African artists are increasingly popular in the primary and secondary art markets—an extension of the resource-extraction of their former colonial powers, though of a more palatable kind. On a 2021 episode of the Ethical Fashion podcast, Mesai Haileleul, cofounder of the Ethiopian gallery Addis Fine Art, addresses the rapacious interest in African works. He told me: “We can’t just be exporting our culture and have nothing at the end. Yes, we get paid for it unlike the past, but some of it has to stay.” 

Closer to home, it does rankle many that none of these artists’ works hang in a public museum anywhere in Nigeria. That there is no consistent engagement with their work, with where it sits and what it does for collective public recollection. That the trajectory of their careers will likely be decided by, yes, their magnificent commitment to looking back and their technical ingenuity, but last last by Euro-American tastes. The indifference of Nigerian institutions is a historical inheritance from the British colonizers and represents a collective lack of introspection ensured by sixty years’ worth of leaders who have not ascribed any great importance to self-determination. There have hardly been any national conversations to reclaim the way we were before the British came. 

At the moment, the “Black body” in the form of large-scale paintings of unquestionably Black people—presumably Nigerians, but it’s hard to tell from their features—has currency. These became popular after the racial uprisings in the US following George Floyd’s murder by police, with young artists also finding success abroad with such works. There has been a greater yearning  in recent times for ambitious documentary photography to address political themes such as self-identity and women’s rights, or protest social issues. Digital art is taking off. Figurative mixed media, sculptures from found objects that celebrate creativity or technical prowess over storytelling, or any works with a specific sociocultural inspiration do very well too. 

But these three artists have had to swim against the tide in Nigeria. Uka broke onto the scene by convincing his German gallery to show at the ART X Lagos fair. He initially attempted and failed to show his work in the National Museum, an antiquated carcass of hidden histories informed by Western modes of exhibition-making that do not honor any local traditions. (Anyway, a show at the National Museum is not necessarily the badge or achievement it might imply. If you can pay an exhibition fee and provide fuel for a few weeks, your exhibition will be up in lights. Meanwhile, sacred Benin Bronzes lie in its storage basements.) 

Foster tried to exhibit at the Lagos museum, too, but found the scene aggressively commercial, and its collectors comically inspired by the decorative. One flipped a painting of hers weeks after purchasing it; she is wary of showing her work with gallerists or curators in Nigeria again. Abass has had better luck. He was mentored by the late, great curator Bisi Silva and has shown at the prestigious Center for Contemporary Art in Lagos that Silva ran until her passing in 2019. But the stakes of staying and staying only in Nigeria are clear. Only after Abass  asked studio assistants to crate up his works, got DHL on the phone, bought a plane ticket, and headed West, did he manage to attain the very height of his career.

Kelani Abass, “Stamping History (Coalescing Time),” 2018.” Courtesy the artist.

Who is the work for? The artists are in an uncomfortable position. The audience for whom they potentially create their work do not make sufficient space for it, nevermind hold it in regard for what it achieves. But attributing this to colonial design is an excuse well past its due date. We neither know the extent of what we have lost, nor do we appreciate what we should recover. Those who ideally should be a peripheral audience are now the primary consumers of these works and a history they are far removed from, but which their ancestors had a hand in decimating. 

For Coalescing time (2018), a work exhibited in April at Art Paris, Abass used number stamps to reproduce a picture of his father and his friends. They’re huddled together, looking straight at the viewer, dressed for occasion in agbadas. In the near distance is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. This gathering did not happen in real life, though it was the dream of Kelly, Abass’s father, to travel, go to America, see the world. In the book of spells he passed to his son were several instructions on how to teleport, to move between time and space. Kelly never quite succeeded, but in this work, Abass achieves what his father wanted. In 2018, Abass had been in San Francisco for a residency and took the image of the bridge. He then coalesced time, the present and the past, placing his deceased father and his social group in their fullness and, with histories, in this present time. It’s a memory once left behind, now firmly in the present—remembered, preserved, and looking forward.

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